by Jessica Brandi
(top to bottom) Kim Carey and Jessica Brandi
How often in your daily life are you asked to kick your foot to the back of your head, roll over your bare toes to your knees, spin on one foot, one—two—three times, do that double-time, twice? For myself and my fellow OnStage dancers, the answer is weekly. Like any art, dance is about telling a story. Where painters use a canvas, dancers use their bodies to connect with an audience on metaphysical level. The challenge is dealing with the physics of it all, the limits of our bodies, which are constantly in flux.
The average retirement age of professional ballerinas is about 29, so in dancer years, my own 24 leaves me aging, at best. Granted, my extra-curricular and often sporadic relationship with the studio over the past twenty years is nothing compared to the daily grind of a professional dance career, but the reality of aging is true for all of us. I wish I could grab my 16-year-old self by the shoulders and shake her until she learns to properly appreciate her effortless switch-leaps, fast metabolism, and triple pirouettes. But I can’t, so I’m left working just that much harder to do what I love and trying not to be bitter about it. There is a constant tension between passion and experience, knowing what you want out of your body versus what is or has been possible in the past. In the best cases, passion wins out, and you adapt; you keep going.
During one of my first rehearsals this season, we spent our last few minutes brainstorming tricks for solo and group sections. And by brainstorming, I mean turning on music and working it out—showing off complicated leaps and turns we had seen, heard of, or maybe done once a long time ago, throwing our bodies to the ground in ways that didn’t seem reasonable or possible because, “yeah, we need to be on the floor for that part” — That’s how these things work. Sometimes the attempts are gorgeous, sometimes not, but the willingness to just go for it, without hesitation or fear of embarrassment or injury, is what makes the process so rewarding. That fearlessness is the essential skill we haven’t lost.
For some reason, this always makes me think of something I learned in a psychology class, of all places. In 1960, Eleanor J. Gibson and Richard Walk developed an experiment called the Visual Cliff. They built, two platforms connected by a piece of glass creating an invisible bridge, or the illusion of a cliff with a steep drop. They placed an infant at one end of the bridge, with the child’s mother
beckoning from the other side. The assumption was that infants who had not developed depth perception would crawl across the bridge to their mothers without hesitation. Infants with more developed depth perception would see the visual drop and hesitate to cross the bridge, for fear of falling.
From a scientific standpoint, this is a flawed analogy, and I make this comparison with the authority of someone who took an intro-level psychology class nearly a decade ago. But I can’t let it go, because as dancers, we are experienced enough to hesitate. Along with basic motor skills and depth perception, we also have extensive knowledge of our physical capabilities and limitations, when a stretch stops hurting in a “good” way, for example. But still, we jump, leap, and spin off the edge of that cliff every time we rehearse.
There is an intrinsic strength in every person of every age who steps foot in a studio and dares to call themselves a dancer. It has nothing to do with carelessness or disregard for personal safety. It’s not an inability to grow up or move on. It’s a refusal to let go of something we still find personally useful and sustaining. It’s part of a sense of adventure that so many people lose sight of in early adulthood. Somehow, we have retained the spirit of that blissful ignorance (if not the actual ignorance) that gives us the will to keep pushing our physical limits.
So, the next time you’re in rehearsal wishing you could be as flexible as you used to be, or leap as high, or turn as fast, give yourself credit for just being there and working hard, without hesitation, even though you know better.
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